Maine’s ‘Common Core’ Offers a Lesson in Standards

By Debra Viadero — April 01, 1992 17 min read
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Several districts are also taking part in the National Education Association’s Mastery in Learning project.

More than a year before a national panel of educators and business and political leaders called on the nation to define and set high standards for what every child should know and be able to do, the state of Maine had already set down a similar path

Educators and citizens here came up with “Maine’s Common Core of Learning,’' a wide-ranging, 55-page plan that establishes 151 goals for student learning. Neither as specific as a curriculum framework nor as sweeping as a vision statement, the document spells out what students should know when they leave school and the skills and attitudes they should take with them.

Maine’s effort resembles in some ways, but not in others, what the members of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing had in mind when they issued their final report in January. A few other states, such as California, have gone farther in setting down specifics for student learning in important subject areas. The national-standards panel cited those efforts frequently and favorably in the report.

But where Maine provides a lesson for the rest of the country may be in the way it has gone about selling its blueprint for learning. In a state where residents pride themselves on being “stubborn Yankees,’' the Common Core is completely voluntary for school districts.

Not unlike the federal officials who may one day be pushing for widespread adoption of national curriculum standards, state education officials in Maine must depend on the willingness of local educators to “do the right thing’’ and the leverage of a fledgling testing system to make it work.

A three-day visit here this winter and talks with dozens of educators across the state suggest that Maine is making slow and steady progress toward its goal.

Setting the Vision

The foundations for the Common Core were laid in 1989, when Commissioner of Education Eve M. Bither came to Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. with an idea for a statewide panel of citizens and educators to set a vision for schooling in the state. The Governor’s enthusiasm for the idea was shown by his reply: “Why didn’t somebody do this 200 years ago?’'

“Nobody ever stepped back and said, ‘What is it kids ought to know?’'' Mr. McKernan said. “In this state, we’ve been able to have an acceptable standard of living without emphasizing education as much as we could be.’'

“It was clear we needed a vision,’' he said.

The 45 citizens selected to draw that vision for Maine represented a wide range of opinions. They included parents, an artist, a student, legislators, business people, and a museum director. Representing the education community were members of the state board of education, officials from the state education department, college presidents, school superintendents, teachers, and a principal from one of the most rural communities in the state.

The commission deliberated for 16 months, with much of that time characterized both by forceful debate and by unexpected agreement.

Interdisciplinary Focus

The biggest point of contention came over what in the end became the document’s most distinguishing feature: an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning.

Rather than dividing learning into traditionally distinct academic subjects, the Common Core suggests that education is naturally interdisciplinary, and that what students learn in one subject is inextricably linked to what they learn in another. Part of educators’ task, the commission decided, is to help pupils see the connections.

That idea was strongly opposed at first by some commission members, who argued that anything but a subject-by-subject approach to teaching could result in “intellectual mush’’ and discourage in-depth thinking in a single discipline.

“The chairman of the panel, the chancellor of the university system, and I all lined up on the side of individual disciplines and the others favored the integrated approach,’' Ms. Bither recalled. “There was a kindergarten teacher on the panel who kept arguing, ‘This is not how people learn,’ and eventually the other side convinced me.’'

The final report divides learning goals into four areas: “communication,’' “personal and global stewardship,’' “reasoning and problem solving,’' and “the human record.’' The designated areas were not intended to result in four separate courses, but only to serve as guideposts for organizing the goals in the report.

The goals also are listed under traditional subject headings in an appendix to the report.

Atoms and Attitudes

Students who mastered the goals outlined in the report would be, in Ms. Bither’s words, modern-day “Renaissance young men and women.’'

Such pupils should be able to understand and apply concepts of ratio, proportion, and percent in a variety of situations, for example, while also fathoming the “historical evolution of democratic principles and components of constitutional government of the United States,’' according to the Common Core.

They would have a working understanding of the “concepts, processes, and systems of technology through time’’ and know the atomic basis of the structure of matter. They would be familiar with Shakespeare and the Bible as well as works of more “diverse literary traditions.’'

The pupils would also display certain attitudes, such as a willingness to “accept responsibility for personal decisions and actions’’ and to risk mistakes. And they would have vital skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively both orally and on paper.

The Common Core also attends to subjects not always considered basic to education. It calls on schools to prepare graduates who can ask and answer questions in a foreign language, and to instill in them an appreciation for drama, dance, music, the visual arts, and other forms of creative expression.

In addition, the plan calls strongly for abolishing the tracking of students according to ability and advocates forging stronger links between schools and communities.

Specific National Standards

In most of these respects, the Common Core differs from the kinds of national standards envisioned in “Raising Standards for American Education,’' the report by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing. That report calls for setting national curriculum standards with greater specificity. (See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)

Such standards should not only articulate what students should know and be able to do, the framers of the NCEST report held, but also the degree to which they should know it. It divides learning into the traditional academic disciplines and focuses on the five subjects mentioned in the national education goals: English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. Moreover, it addresses content, not methodology.

“What we’ve identified as critically important is a much higher level of sophistication and complexity,’' said Richard H. Card, the executive director of the office of professional education for the University of Maine system and a former member of the state commission. “But I don’t think the two are incompatible.’'

“Any student who is able to master the goals of the Core will do extremely well on any national test,’' added Ms. Bither, who also served on the national-standards panel.

Both the state and national documents endorse some of the efforts already under way to set standards in particular disciplines. The NCEST report praises the mathematics standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, for example, while the Common Core includes them. And elements of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s recommendations for science education appear in both reports.

The documents also share a commitment to setting high academic standards for all students, as well as an emphasis on keeping the goals voluntary.

“There has to be some commitment inside the school district,’' said Heidi McGinley, the coordinator for the Common Core in the state education department.

“In other states, it may be possible to say, ‘Here it is, the best thing since sliced bread, and we want you to have it in place by September,’'' she added. “But there’s a strong tradition of local control here, and you just can’t do it.’'

That relationship between the state and local school districts is not unlike that between the federal Education Department and the states, observed Marshall Smith, the dean of the school of education at Stanford University and the leader of the NCEST subcommittee that examined the standards issue.

‘This Makes Sense’

One of the most striking aspects of the Common Core is the widespread agreement it appears to have engendered in the 21 months since its completion in July 1990. From Guilford, a rural community, to Farmington, a university town, teachers, parents, principals, and school superintendents said they have no major philosophical differences with the Common Core.

“People said, ‘Hey, this makes sense,’ '' said Robert Kautz, the superintendent of the Wells-Ogunquit School District, where the school board formally adopted the plan last June.

“I think there’s a general perception that this is realistic, attainable, and practical,’' said Richard Lyons, the superintendent of a district composed of four small towns in the central part of the state.

While the document is far from a household word in the state, it has captured the attention of parents in some districts.

“When I read this sometimes I don’t understand all of it,’' said Susan Tinguely, a Farmington parent. “When I come into the classroom, I really see how it applies, and I use it as a tool to begin to formulate for myself what education can be for kids.’'

Despite such widespread agreement, however, only 38 of 184 districts are actively working with the state to implement the Common Core, according to the state department. Only a handful of local school boards have formally endorsed it.

“There’s not a stampede here,’' conceded Ms. McGinley, who travels more than 2,500 miles a month working with districts on the Common Core.

Far From ‘Nuts and Bolts’

Part of the problem, said Connie Goldman, the superintendent of the Cape Elizabeth schools, may be the document’s lack of specificity. To avoid dictating curriculum, the framers of the Common Core consciously stuck to broad principles on what students should know and be able to do.

“It’s a nice discussion piece, but it’s a fair distance to nuts and bolts,’' said Ms. Goldman, who has used the plan to spur community discussions on reform.

“When you try to translate this into report cards and courses, you still have arguments about who ought to be in the honors course,’' she said. “I see it as more of a visionary statement.’'

State officials concede they have no one right way to show school administrators such as Ms. Goldman how to implement the Common Core.

“I would have to say I don’t know,’' Ms. Bither acknowledged, “but we’re working on it.’'

What the state has done so far is to provide copies of the report to every teacher and school administrator in the state. Last summer, state officials held workshops on the Common Core that were attended by educators from nearly 70 districts.

These days, Ms. McGinley’s mission is mostly to offer tactful technical assistance to districts that seek it.

Such aid is not always wanted, however. Many districts are still bristling from a raft of new requirements imposed on them under state education-reform measures of the mid-1980’s, leaving relationships between the state and local districts strained.

Indeed, state officials spent the first year following release of the Common Core trying to convince local school officials that it was not a mandate.

“They said, ‘Ah-ha, here comes the state curriculum we never wanted,’'' said Constance Miller Manter, who works with Ms. McGinley on the Common Core projects.

Overshadowed by Recession

But the greatest obstacle to wider implementation of the Common Core principles has been the recession. Faced with a mounting budget deficit, the state cut aid to districts by $16.1 million for the current fiscal year.

Next year, state education spending could be further reduced by as much as $15 million, said Senator Stephen C. Estes, the co-chairman of the legislature’s joint education committee, who noted that the cuts would come on top of an existing gap between the school costs certified by the state board and the amount actually allocated by the state.

“If we weren’t going through this financial crisis, I think the Common Core would be much more visible and much more debated,’' said Francis McDermott, the superintendent of the Bonny Eagle School District.

Moreover, the legislature is considering whether to eliminate funds for the Maine Education Assessment, a state-mandated testing system for measuring students’ academic progress in grades 4, 8, and 11.

The tests, another product of the mid-80’s school-reform movement, now provide the state’s only leverage for spurring curricular change. Although the assessments have been slowly moving to incorporate more of the kinds of performance-based questions that are reflective of the Common Core--some 40 percent of the questions on the test are now performance-based--they have been unpopular with educators because they are used in the media to compare districts.

“The M.E.A. has become a political hot potato,’' Senator Estes said. “In tight budget times, some legislators feel it’s not as much of a priority as some other areas.’'

At the district level, the impact of the state budget cuts has varied widely. In Farmington’s Brook Cascade Elementary School, for example, the loss of state funds has meant an end to student field trips.

“You have this grand and glorious document that’s like motherhood and apple pie, and you can talk now about getting into this, well, then you find out you can’t take field trips,’' said Holly Price, a teacher at the school. “How can you get out into the community if you can’t take field trips?’'

School administrators across the state believe that implementing the Common Core requires that teachers be given time away from their regular duties to flesh out the learning goals, plan a process for making changes, and learn more about new educational strategies or curricular focuses. To provide such opportunities, districts often must pay their staff overtime or hire substitute teachers to temporarily assume the regular teachers’ classroom duties.

State officials concede that the state’s current budget crisis has overshadowed the Common Core’s progress--for now.

“I do see it as a problem, but I don’t see it as insurmountable,’' said Governor McKernan. “It has made it more difficult.’'

In a better budget year, Mr. McKernan said, he would favor changing the basic school-aid formula to reward districts that experiment with reforms. Currently, the only state funds available for innovative district efforts come from a small state grant program, which has already been reduced to $300,000 from a peak of $900,000 several years ago.

Ms. Bither said she eventually hopes to add another “stick’’ in her campaign to foster use of the Common Core--the development of a certificate of mastery, linked to the learning goals in the Common Core, for students in the 10th and 12th grades.

Under the state’s tight budget circumstances, however, even additional copies of the Common Core have become hard to get. Ms. McGinley said the state can no longer afford to fulfill large orders for the booklets.

Making Changes

Of the 38 districts actively working on the Common Core, those that have come the farthest tend to be districts receiving private grants or outside assistance or those that have already embarked on education reforms. The approaches they have used vary widely.

Piscataquis Community High School in rural Guilford, for example, is using a $571,000, three-year grant from RJR Nabisco’s Next Century Schools grant program to underwrite a number of reforms suggested by the Common Core. In little more than a year, the school’s staff has eliminated academic tracking in most subjects.

Teachers at the school have refocused the business, vocational-education, and health and physical-education programs, and are about a third of the way to rewriting the entire curriculum. This spring, the staff plans to begin developing mastery-based tests to gauge students’ progress in meeting Common Core goals.

“What we talk about is replacing the traditional clock and calendar with actual learning,’' said Principal Norman Higgins, who was a member of the committee that wrote the Common Core. “In the past, you had a credit or a course that was kind of a proxy for learning, except we’re not sure that’s valid.’'

In Wells-Ogunquit, where the Common Core is official district policy, teachers and administrators spent months learning how to work together and becoming more comfortable with ideas in the Common Core.

“For many years, we’ve had the assumption that people knew how to work together,’' said Superintendent Kautz. “It’s not true.’'

Two local industries provided training for teachers and administrators in corporate human-relations strategies, such as team-building and problem-solving. A third company underwrote seminars open to the community on education-reform issues.

Now, teachers are in the process of translating the Common Core into more specific learning outcomes in traditional subject areas. Later, they will refine that list and regroup the learning goals into the four areas outlined in the Common Core.

Mr. Kautz said the district is also working with the University of Southern Maine to develop authentic assessment activities to measure students’ progress in meeting those curricular goals.

“You just can’t take the Common Core as it’s presently printed and easily translate that into a curriculum,’' Mr. Kautz said. “There may be other things to learn before you can expect students to do what the Common Core says they should do.’'

Not Collecting Dust

Teachers at Mallett Elementary School in Farmington used the Common Core as the philosophical underpinning for a program that mixes kindergartners and 1st graders in the same classrooms and encourages their parents to take an active role. The parents and teachers on the steering committee that run the program also are working to get other parents in the community to read the Common Core.

“To say that it’s just a book and collecting dust on a bookshelf would not be accurate,’' said Mr. Card of the University of Maine. “This has generated a lot of activity and interest.’'

It is the step from “interest’’ to “activity,’' however, that is proving difficult for most districts.

At Brook Cascade, for example, Principal Tom Taylor said staff members found they had hit “a roadblock’’ in their discussions of the Common Core.

“We weren’t ready to adopt the Common Core because it didn’t really belong to us,’' he said.

Now, the school has temporarily put the document aside and has begun working with a University of Maine education researcher to articulate its own vision for education. The next step, Mr. Taylor said, will be to look at how the two views mesh.

For now, teachers at the school agree on one point: They want a common vision.

“It’s frustrating teaching sometimes, and you look at it, day to day, and you feel, ‘Where am I going with this?’ '' said Steven Heath, a teacher at the school. “If I really had a plan to know where I was going, I could get there.’'

In the small town of Mexico, Superintendent of Schools William H. Richards said he is meeting with similar difficulties working to implement the Common Core in his district. Mr. Richardson, who as a deputy associate state commissioner drafted the Common Core, said resistance in his district has come from a tradition-bound community and from teachers with no time, apart from their classes, to work on the Common Core.

“I crafted the darn thing, and I love it, but really translating it into meaningful action is difficult,’' he said. “If there’s a lesson here for national standard-setting efforts, it’s to really understand the conditions in which we’re expecting change to occur.’'

‘Slowly Gathering Speed’

Despite the fits and starts, however, state officials and supporters of the Common Core said they are approaching “critical mass.’'

“It’s like a train slowly gathering speed without any obstacles in its way,’' Ms. Bither said.

They point out, for example, that the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, a group of citizen, education, and business leaders formed last year to spur education reform in the state, has made the Common Core a top priority.

Advocates also see opportunities to transform the document into practice through other education-reform efforts already taking place in the state.

For example, Maine has joined the Re:Learning network organized by the Coalition for Essential Schools and the Education Commission of the States to promote the theories of the education reformer Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University. As part of the project, the state must assist at least 10 schools in making changes “from the bottom up.’' Educators say much of the Common Core already reflects many of Mr. Sizer’s ideas.

Several districts are also taking part in the National Education Association’s Mastery in Learning project.

Moreover, some branches of the state university system have begun exploring ways their teacher-education programs can reflect Common Core principles.

“I’ll bet five years from now the Common Core will be implemented in over half the school districts,’' Governor McKernan said.

“I like to think,’' Ms. Bither said in a meeting last month, “it’s more like 90 percent.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Education Week as Maine’s ‘Common Core’ Offers a Lesson in Standards


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